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The not-so-simple life

Catherine von Ruhland

It's the season of spring cleaning, a time to simplify and de-clutter. Faced with an excess of hoarded stuff, Catherine von Ruhland wonders whether we value material possessions too much - or too little.


My mother has never bought herself any music. She found the soundtrack to her life by listening to the wireless - and later the records her children collected. In 1977 we unwrapped our Christmas presents to the strains of my brother's new Sex Pistols album - and in 2002, when BBC News played an excerpt from 'London Calling' to mark the death of Clash frontman Joe Strummer, my mum piped up: 'Oh, I know this one.' So she didn't need to own her music - she just absorbed it from around her.

That was the difference between my generation and hers. The way we consumed music meant it wasn't enough simply to listen. We had to collect it, accumulate it around us like an identity. Decades later, as I try to de-clutter my flat, my vinyl collection presents a problem. It's just too rich for the charity shop: from Soft Cell's Non-Stop Erotic Cabaret to David Bowie's Heroes. Why would I want to get rid of such classics? But they're just the tip of the iceberg. Elsewhere there's a stack of vintage style magazines - iD and The Face - and in the back of a wardrobe, fashion milestones like the black and red stretch fabric Body Map skirt, bought from Camden Market all those years ago. And let's not forget all the books, videos, DVDs, cuttings and paperwork which make up the domestic maelstrom of being a writer. Can I bear to part with any of them?

Nothing highlights the modern obsession with 'stuff' so much as the annual resolution to simplify, reduce and slim down one's life. Jesus commands: 'Do not store up treasures on earth where moth and rust consume, and where thieves break in and steal, but lay up for yourselves treasure in heaven.'1 On the surface, this appears an anti-materialism statement, a Declutterers' Manifesto, as if our 'treasures' must only be spiritual. Yet, a couple of years ago, when a cupboard shelf's worth of childhood mementoes of deep personal value went missing, I suffered a lot of initial pain. It soon dissipated, as I found myself able to mentally list much of what had been thrown out. But it proved its worth by the very fact that it remains in my head and in my heart. The God who created the beauty and wonder of the physical universe and gave our species the privilege of being able to appreciate so much of it, must surely understand why that same instinct might extend to our possessions and how we might imbue them with meaning too. Jesus' words thus come as a warning for us to take care of what we happen to care about.

The images of the terrifying impact of the Japanese tsunami, or even our own more modest floods in Britain, remind us how vulnerable our lives and possessions can be. And yet we are all going to die one day, and then much of what we held dear will be of no use to us or those we leave behind. The lesson for us is to retain a lighter hold on what so easily can be destroyed and yet conversely, to appreciate more - but be selective in the things we choose to keep.

The designer William Morris's maxim that one should 'have nothing in your home that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful'2 serves as a helpful reminder to take a thoughtful breather before we buy. Perhaps we can find our beauty without any monetary transaction at all. After all, a child's piece of artwork, a pebble or a piece of driftwood off the beach all freely display their own innate value.

On the other hand, the cheapest option isn't necessarily the wisest, tempting as it may be in a recession. I once bought a £6 bag from Primark. It lasted a month before the lining ripped and the zip stuck. I then spent £36 at Wallis and that bag, while tatty round the edges, has so far lasted the best part of two years. Quality and durability do almost always come at a higher price. If purchases are far cheaper than they've any right to be, shortcuts have been made somewhere and that tends to be in workers' rights and pay as much as workmanship. As Christians we express respect for those involved in the manufacturing process by opting to spend more for a better item, or by sourcing fairly traded or earth-friendly goods - though ethical or green consumerism is still consumerism. As Harriet Lamb, executive director of the Fairtrade Foundation has admitted: 'There's a danger that Fairtrade gives people a licence not to worry about the other stuff.'3

The main problem is that our very economy is short-sightedly built on that other stuff - and our addiction to buying and selling more and more of it. We are living beyond our global means, and our planet and its finite resources cannot withstand much more pollution and plunder without serious consequences. Clearly, the best option must sometimes be to go without.

In that sense, the switchover from CDs to digital downloads during my teenage niece and nephew's lifetimes appears a positive development. It saves resources and storage space. Some twentysomething professionals now live via their laptops and mobiles, even to the extent of making their homes in hotels. They access all media digitally, making my vinyl and piles of books seem antiquated and wasteful.4

Yet anything gained for the environment seems to me to be lost in the physical, sensory realm. My slightly worn secondhand Cliff Richard and the Shadows records - released before I was even born - carry the tangible enjoyment of their previous owners, and tell of a shared pleasure. For all the unlimited choice to music archives the net provides, something very human has disappeared by making music bytesize. Likewise, a book made from the life of a tree, rather than a silicone chip, seems to me to carry something sacred about it.

The flippancy with which tracks, books, programmes and other media can now be downloaded or deleted ultimately diminishes their value, and we begin to expect something for nothing. Artists, writers and musicians are also having to fight to retain copyright ownership of their digitalised work, which is increasingly seen as 'content' rather than something beautiful in its own right.

Royalties are further squeezed by increasingly lowered unit prices in the shops and online. If we lose the sense that the 'worker is worthy of their hire' and artists cannot afford to make art because we are unwilling to pay them for it, then we will ultimately get the aesthetically impoverished life we deserve..

So exchanging one real-world format for another more slimline or digital is in some ways a distraction from the real issue, which is our continuing addiction to the consumer cycle of accumulation and waste. I am fully aware of how my clutter hinders me, but disposing of it requires me to be vulnerable, face the risk of regretting my decision, and let go. It is about trusting God with what remains, my innate value and underlying feelings, and believing that my real treasure will be kept safe.

Yet, let's be honest, British Christians tend not to fundamentally challenge the mindset in which status is tied up in where we live, how much we earn, and what we own. We are generally as culturally up-to-date with the new gadgets, as likely as the next consumer to upgrade to a new mobile every year, when it might be preferable to ask ourselves what was wrong with last year's model.

Should we then bite the bullet and take heed of Jesus' advice to the rich man to sell our possessions and give to the poor? Some will be called to do that, but I would argue that most of us simply need properly to value what we have, recycle what is unnecessary, and refrain from compulsively refilling the space we've created. Certainly just clearing a worktop in my kitchen had an immediate impact on my mental space, like some sunlight being let in. But it also enabled the simple integrity of the carefully chosen items which remained to shine. A tidy flat will mean I'm now more likely to offer hospitality too! It's about appreciating the worth of our possessions in the context of a finite world and a loving God.

In that sense, the problem with our throwaway and digital culture is not that it values stuff too much, but too little. It is just product, to be churned out, thrown away, and endlessly replaced. Our role as Christians is not to be similarly dismissive. In carefully selecting and looking after our things, we are called to reflect God's Created Order.

1  Matthew 6: 19-21.
2  'The Decorative Arts: Their relation to modern life and progress'. Lecture, 1877.